Writer’s Desk: Stay Curious About Everything

There are writers—some, but certainly not all—whose eyes will glaze over at the mere mention of topics like “science.” (See also: “401K,” “Retirement Planning,” “Job Security,” and “Deadlines” for other unpopular topics.) But stay with me with for this.

A couple weeks back, the great George Will turned away from deftly skewering members of his former party for bowing and scraping before the president and turned to the topic of curiosity. In “America is Sacrificing the Future,” Will talks about a 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner with the glorious title “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Will approvingly highlights Flexner’s thesis, which is that many of the greatest inventions sprang not from diligent and targeted effort, but rather the application of discoveries made in the process of research for research’s sake.

Will uses Flexner to buttress his central argument that the administration’s push to cut general research budgets is a phenomenally short-sighted endeavor, not uncommon in these STEM-obsessed times: “America is eating its seed corn.”

But the point goes beyond that. Per Will:

It has been said that the great moments in science occur not when a scientist exclaims ‘Eureka!’ but when he or she murmurs ‘That’s strange.’ Flexner thought the most fertile discoveries come from scientists ‘driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.’

Writing is not that different. Of course, when working on that novel about the blind detective from Johannesburg, you better make sure you figure out a few things first (what’s Afrikaans for “You’re under arrest”?).

But writers, like scientists, should never stop following the urge to satisfy their often random-seeming curiosities. You never know what you might come across.

Nota Bene: The New Canon

eternalsunshine1 ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (Focus Features)

The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday has just addressed an obvious lacuna in movie criticism by declaring first that not only has the Great Movie Canon remained stubbornly fixed for too long (Vertigo, Citizen Kane) but that there are many movies post-2000 that stand up alongside all the greats of yesteryear.

Hornaday’s article “The New Canon” is an absolute must-read. She also selected a fairly unassailable list, excepting maybe Spike Lee’s adventurous but uneven 25th Hour and Kenneth Lonergan’s solid but somewhat unremarkable You Can Count on Me. Her list is here but it’s best reading her arguments are each of them as well:

  • Children of Men
  • 25th Hour
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Michael Clayton
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Boyhood
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
  • Old Joy
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Hunger
  • You Can Count on Me
  • No Country for Old Men
  • I’m Not There
  • Minority Report
  • Dunkirk
  • Mudbound
  • Spotlight
  • Son of Saul
  • Stories We Tell
  • The Fog of War
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Spirited Away

Screening Room: ‘Do You Trust This Computer?’

doyoutrust1 ‘Do You Trust This Computer?’ (Papercut Films)

The new documentary from Chris Paine (Who Killed the Electric Car?) takes on a far more mistrusting topic of technology, namely: What’s artificial intelligence going to do to us as a species?

Do You Trust This Computer? is playing now. My review is at Film Journal International:

The delicious danger of malevolent machines has been an attractive science-fiction standby ever since R.U.R., Karel Capel’s 1920 play about a robot rebellion. There are a couple of problems with that statement, both of which are obliquely referenced in Chris Paine’s stylistically monotonous but occasionally thought-provoking documentary Do You Trust This Computer?

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: How About Oranges?

In 1965, New Yorker writer John McPhee met with the magazine’s famously hard-to-please editor William Shawn to discuss his next story idea. According to Wyatt Williams’ Oxford American essay:

The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”

That was it. That’s all it took:

According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”

McPhee came back with 40,000 words on oranges for the magazine. He later turned it into a book. Title? Oranges.

All from a one-word pitch.

Reader’s Corner: Defend Your Bookstore

I hate London Nazis.

This past weekend was business as usual at Bookmarks, Britain’s “largest socialist bookshop.” Then the fascists showed up.

According to The Guardian, “the store was attacked by far-right protesters wearing masks who wrecked displays and ripped up books and magazines.”

Also:

The campaign group Stand Up To Racism, speaking on behalf of Bookmarks, said some of the attackers carried placards reading “British Bolshevik Cult” and that one of those involved wore a Donald Trump mask.

Nobody was hurt. This time.

Per Shelf Awareness, “The store will host a free, open-to-the-public ‘solidarity event’ next Saturday, with several authors slated to appear.” Anybody who is in or nearby London, loves books and free discourse, and hates Nazis would be well-served to stop by and show support.

Writer’s Desk: Write the Book You’re Supposed to Write

When Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn was trying to write her very great, very creepy novel Dark Places, she was having trouble with the heroine, who she initially wanted to seem different than her earlier protagonists. According to this article from Fast Company, Flynn showed some pages to her husband. He read them, poured her some wine, and said, “you can tell you don’t like her, and you don’t like writing her.”

Per Flynn:

It was a very good lesson, which is: don’t let the outside voices tell you what you should be writing. You’ve got to write the book that you’re supposed to be writing, not write the book that you think people will want to read or the book that will sell better or the book that the critics will like more.

Nota Bene: Film Forum Reopens

August is here and, just in time, Film Forum has reopened after a long-overdue renovation. The place is almost a half-century old. “Not bad” (as their website notes) “for a scrappy non-profit that started with 50 folding chairs and a 16mm projector the size of a breadbox.”

More than just another arthouse, Film Forum is one of the last standing temples of American cinephilia, the sort of place that can mix obscure spaghetti westerns and avant-garde documentaries with an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective and the latest in Iranian or South Korean cinema without missing a beat. Plus, the popcorn is amazing, even sans butter.

The Times published some recollections about Film Forum, from filmmakers like John Turturro to Christopher Nolan. Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) speaks for many cinephiles’ aching backsides:

Their renovations sound wonderful, because, yes, we all know, their seats were a little uncomfortable and the sightlines were not ideal — but their programming was so impeccable that we went anyway.